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The Soo Locks: Past, present, future

The Soo Locks: Past, present, future
February 14, 2020 Ric Mixter
Photo by Sandra Svoboda/Great Lakes Now

Christening of the River – 1620 

Lake Superior is 18 feet higher than Lake Huron. The water changes elevation about 14 miles downstream from Superior, at a rapids known by Native Americans for its abundant whitefish. French priests name the falls for Mary, mother of Jesus, and the area and river is since known by its French name, Sault Ste. Marie.

France Claims Control – June 14, 1671

Indigenous leaders from all around the lakes are invited to the ‘Pageant of the Sault,’ where European explorers annex the Great Lakes.

Fur Trader Lock – 1797

Built by the North West Company in 1797, the original lock consists of 2580 feet of canal and a lock, designed to raise or lower the fur trader’s bateaux 9 feet to get around the rapids on the St Marys River.

Sault Divided – 1820

The 1814 Treaty of Ghent ended the War of 1812, restoring the borders of the U.S. and Canada to pre-war boundaries. The St. Marys River is the boundary between the two countries, but it wasn’t enforced until the arrival of Michigan Territorial Gov. Lewis Cass in June. Two years later, the official boundaries of the U.S. and Canada are officially established along the shipping lanes.

Ore is Discovered – 1844

Rich deposits of iron ore are discovered in Michigan, and ships are eager to get the mineral to furnaces to make iron. The rapids at St. Marys make this impossible, so ships have to be detoured on land using greased poles. The first ship moved this way was reportedly the British brig Axmouth in 1817, taking about a month. The first steamers on Lake Superior are moved this way, including Independence (1845) and Julia Palmer (1846). Cargo also can be moved by using two ships and a few horses. Railways are eventually installed down the same roads that moved the ships, and the road is still called Portage today. By 1850, the Chippewa Portage Company and another firm called Spalding and Bacon compete to haul freight, but become obsolete when the locks open.

The “Pioneer” Lock – 1855

After much debate, the 32nd Congress grants $25,000 to build a ship canal around Saint Marys Falls. Construction starts June 4, 1853. The limestone used comes from quarries at Marblehead, Ohio, and the lock is faced with blocks from nearby Drummond Island. The first canal opens June 18, 1855, with the transit of the steamer Illinois. The first ship eastward is the Baltimore. Lock gates are opened by hand windlass. Ownership of the locks transfers from the state of Michigan to the federal government and access is made free to all vessels. In that first year, 30,000 tons is moved, and that tonnage quadruples by 1860. Total cost of building the lock is $999,802.46.

Weitzel Lock – 1881

The success of the ‘pioneer’ lock quickly leads to designs for an even larger lock at the Sault. On May 28, 1873, ground is broken by Lt. Col. Godfrey Weitzel. The first stone to line its sides is placed July 25, 1876. The new lock, at 515 feet long, is considered to be the largest in the world at the time. Weitzel opens to traffic Sept. 1, 1881. The first ship through is the steamer City of Cleveland. The cost of construction is reportedly $1.59 million.

Neebish Cut – 1884

Three miles below the locks, the St. Marys River has a sharp bend that is difficult to navigate. The water is surveyed by drill during the winter, and holes are drilled 22 feet apart in the sandstone. Dynamite is used to blast through the limestone around Neebish Island, and massive towers are built to aid in removing sand and rock from the channel. This new route saves mariners 11 miles and allows for safer night transit on the river. The cost of the project is $2.1 million.

Poe Lock – 1889

The Poe Lock is dug out from the original pioneer lock. Several contractors fail in their low-bid contracts to provide stone, so the budget is overrun by completion. Schooners and steamers bring the stone to a new pier near the old Fort Brady. McMyler traveling cranes run the distance along a thousand-foot pier to store and haul the blocks that originate from Kelleys Island and Marblehead, Ohio. As with the original lock, limestone from Drummond Island is used as backing.

Four Month Leak – 1891

A persistent leak in the western end of cofferdam plagues superintendent Maj. Orlando Poe from March 18 until July 10. The main lock-pit is flooded, and pumps have a hard time keeping the work area dry. The hole is eventually plugged with 1800 sacks packed with clay and several wagon loads worth of hay.

Canadian Locks – 1895

In May 1870, the United States refused passage to a steamer that was transporting British and Canadian soldiers. Col. Garnet Wolseley took his troops off the Chicora and walked on the Ontario side of the river until the ship made passage through the locks. The incident led to the construction of a Canadian Sault Ste. Marie canal, which is completed in 1895. At the time, it is the largest lock and first electrically operated lock in the world, 274 meters long and 18 meters wide. An emergency swing dam is also installed to protect the lock in case of an accident. The cost of construction is reportedly $4.093 million (U.S.).

Poe Opens – 1896

On Aug. 3, the Poe Lock opens, with the USS Hancock the first to transit. The lock is named for Gen. Orlando Poe, who engineered Gen. Sherman’s march to Atlanta during the Civil War and supervised Great Lakes improvements, including two locks and several lighthouses. The total construction cost is $4.738 million.

Poe Administration Building – 1896

The Army Corps Administration building is designed by Edward Pearce Casey of New York, and the general contractor is Joseph Gearing. Work on the general power plant begins in April 1895 and stone is transported in the Weitzel lock to the jobsite. The foundation rests on a base that is solid concrete 21-feet thick. The building, 81 feet 6 inches by 80 feet 9 inches, stands 126 feet to the tip of the original chimney. The limestone walls are cut from quarries on Kelleys Island, and the first floor is decked out with rubbed marble baseboards as well as Georgia pine trim. It serves as the canal office and Poe Lock pumphouse upon completion in 1896.

50th Anniversary – 1905

A special 50th Anniversary celebration of the Soo Locks brings together many of the people involved in the original lock construction, including superintendent Charles Harvey as Grand Marshall. The event is attended by the United States vice president.

Stories of the impact of the locks are shared. Historians at the event point out that millions of acres of farmland in the Dakotas and Canadian Northwest started growing wheat as a result of the locks. The impact of that grain meant that bread was cheaper in Boston. Millions of board feet of lumber from Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota passed through the canal at the end of the 17th Century. Michigan copper, considered the purest in the world, was made available for use in telegraphs and telephones around the world. Ore from Lake Superior was of such higher quality that it could be mixed with Pennsylvania ores and some believe it saved the steel industry there. Before the canal, the U.S. was dependent on the British Isles for steel. By 1890, U.S. production of pig iron had matched Great Britain. By 1900, the locks pushed the country to twice the output of England. By the time of the 50th celebration, American steel output was more than Britain, Germany and France combined. Historian Peter White said, “My thesis is this: The opening of the Sault canal has been the largest benefit to the whole United States of any single happening in its commercial or industrial history.”

Canadian Lock Repairs – June 9, 1909

The emergency swing dam installed to protect the lock is utilized when the steamer Perry Walker unexpectedly pushes forward, crashing into the north main gate. The entire volume of the lock rushes downstream, carrying the steamer Assinibola and Crescent City with it. The latter bounces past the Assinibola, causing the most damage. Two nearby tugs see the accident and quickly pull the sinking freighter to the American side where the Crescent City sinks. Lock repairs require only 12 days.

Davis Lock – 1914

A third lock is added. At 1350 feet, it is the longest lock in the world when it opens. The Davis Lock cost $2.5 million to build. The lock is designed to handle two 600-foot freighters at once.

On October 21, dignitaries from several shipping companies line the lock walls to watch as the U.S. Engineering department’s tug Alfred Noble passes through the Davis Lock.  Freighters soon followed, including the James A. Farrell, Richard Trimble and Canadian steamship W. Grant Morden.

A century later, the Davis Lock is only used for Soo Area Office vessels when necessary.

Sabin Lock – 1919

On September 19 at 4:20 p.m., the first steamer enters the Sabin Lock. The Gen GJ Lydecker was followed by the freighter William Livingstone.

Named for General Superintendent Louis C Sabin, the Sabin Lock is built during the years 1913 through 1919. It has a length of 1350 feet and a width of 80 feet. The Sabin and Davis Locks are very similar in construction and design, although not all parts are interchangeable. Modern technology helps the workers on this fourth lock, including 70-ton steam shovels, electric and pneumatic augers and a new electric winch to open the gates. The Sabin Lock has three sets of gates at each end.

In 2010, the Sabin Lock is permanently decommissioned.

MacArthur Lock – 1943

The MacArthur Lock is gouged out of the old Weitzel Lock, with a new record in construction time set with just 13 months to completion. The rush is World War II, with U.S. steel plants needing ore, coal and other supplies. The importance of the locks is visually apparent with silken barrage balloons floating overhead during the opening.  Guards outnumber civilians at the dedication five to one. On July 11, the 16-year old daughter of the project engineer breaks a bottle of champagne on the lock wall. The steamer Carl Bradley, the largest freighter on the lakes at the time, heads through to Lake Superior.

MacArthur isn’t the largest lock, but it is the deepest, able to accommodate ships with a draft of 30 feet. It has a length of 800 feet between the sills and a width of 80 feet.

The cost to build this lock is nearly $14 million.

Edmund Fitzgerald – 1958         

The Edmund Fitzgerald is launched. It is the largest ship ever launched on the Great Lakes at the time. In 1968, the Edmund Fitzgerald moves 1,358,074 tons of cargo through the Soo Locks, setting a new single season record.

By November 1975, the Fitzgerald had logged an estimated 748 round trips on the Great Lakes and covered more than a million miles. The Fitzgerald had at least three documented accidents at the Soo Locks, including scraping the bottom and striking the lock walls three times from 1970 to 1974.

The locks were officially closed during the storm that sank the ship on November 10, 1975. 

Poe Rebuilt – 1968

The Poe Lock is rebuilt and has a length of 1200 feet and a width of 110 feet. It is constructed at the site of the old ‘pioneer’ lock. The Philip R. Clarke enters the lock to test its functionality on Oct. 30 but the formal dedication and opening of the lock only happens June 26, 1969. Both the Clarke and the Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw were opened for tours during the dedication.

Cort sets Records – 1973

The Cort makes its maiden trip through the locks on May 4. On its way back it carries a record 49,343 gross tons, more than any ship in history through the locks. Cort breaks its own record on July 4 with 64,327 tons. The current record at the locks is held by the Paul Tregurtha, which hauled 3,004,957 tons over the 2001 season.

Canadian Lock Downsized – 1987

Repairs on the Canadian lock in 1987 lead to a new smaller lock, built within the old lock, that is 77 metres long. Recreational boats as well as the famous Soo Locks tour boat use this lock frequently.

The Future Lock – 2027

Designed at the same length as the Poe, the new lock would provide redundancy in case the Poe is damaged or broken. In 2017, the Poe handled 89 percent of the traffic at the Soo Locks. The current $1.03 billion plan is to blast and dredge the upstream channel at the lock and backfill the closed Davis lock. Construction of the new lock is scheduled for completion in 2027.

Featured Image: Soo Locks, Photo by Sandra Svoboda

1 Comment

  1. Mike V. 2 months ago

    We visited last summer and were wonderfully impressed by the massiveness and beauty of the Soo Locks… and impressed by the awesomeness of the tonnage they move for our great nation, and for the world. Thanks to all who make this valuable and impressive locks & dam structure so functional. Thank you also for the YouTube videos and this great website!

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